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Expand chart
Data: Robotics Industry Association; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

In a challenge to the narrative of a declining American advantage in the global tech race, U.S. factories are installing record numbers of robots — and elite universities, endowed with huge new contributions, are adding vast centers to study artificial intelligence.

Why it matters: As we have reported previously, China has a massive global lead in the absolute number of new factory robots, and is pouring large sums into developing AI. But the twin U.S. trendlines — a surge in university research spending and the spike in robots — suggest a still-robust competition to dominate technologies of the future.

Robot-makers shipped 35,880 robots to U.S. factories last year, 7% more than in 2017, according to a new report from the Robotics Industry Association. And the balance shifted from a heavy dominance of auto-making robots to many more bots in the food, semiconductor and plastics industries.

  • For a couple of years, U.S. executives have said a widely forecast wave of AI and new robotization has been slow to arrive. But Alexander Shikany, who leads market research for the RIA, said the trend in robot deployment suggests an inflection point.
  • "Robots are getting better, cheaper and more versatile, and therefore can be used more effectively in more industries," says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Add to that Big Education: In a ceremony today, MIT celebrated the creation of a $1 billion College of Computing, anchored with a single, $350 million contribution from Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone, the private equity firm. The college was announced in October.

  • In an interview with Axios, Schwarzman said his aim was in part to keep the U.S. competitive with countries like China.
  • But he also said he is worried that, "if AI is allowed to develop in an unchecked way, it could end up creating significant dislocations in society."
  • Schwarzman said one mission for the new college is "to make sure everyone understands the power of the technology and when it should be applied."

Researchers must keep a clear eye on "keeping technology under control," he said, and not surging headlong into advances and deployments without contemplating the consequences. "Just because it's cool isn't necessarily good enough," Schwarzman said.

But, but, but: Even as U.S. industry and top universities invest in future technologies, China is vastly outpacing the West in national planning and investments in AI and robotics, experts say.

  • "The position in this country has been to let the market dictate what happens with tech and science, and I think that's going to prove to be a catastrophic mistake," says Amy Webb, a professor at NYU and author of a "The Big Nine," a forthcoming book on the future of AI.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - World

Reports: Brazil leader to be accused of crimes against humanity over COVID

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: Andressa Anholete/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A Brazilian Senate panel will recommend President Jair Bolsonaro be charged with "crimes against humanity," alleging his COVID-19 pandemic response led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, per the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The latest: The lawmakers initially said Bolsonaro should be charged with mass homicide and genocide, but lawmakers updated the report to replace these with the new charge, its lead author, Sen. Renan Calheiros, told the NYT.

California governor declares drought emergency for entire state

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speakinng to reporters in Los Angeles in September. Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) extended a drought emergency declaration to cover the entire state on Tuesday.

Why it matters: "California is experiencing its worst drought since the late 1800s, as measured by both lack of precipitation and high temperatures," per a statement from the governor's office. This past August was the driest and hottest one on record, "and the water year that ended last month was the second driest on record," the statement added.

Updated 5 hours ago - World

North Korea claims latest missile test new weapon launched from submarine

North Korean state media claims the country's military fired this missile on Tuesday. Photo: Korean Central News Agency

North Korean state media announced that a detected ballistic missile launch off its east coast on Tuesday was a newly developed weapon test-fired from a submarine.

Why it matters: Pyongyang's latest in a series of recent missile launches into the sea happened hours after U.S. officials emphasized their commitment to restart negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which have stalled since talks broke down during the Trump administration, AP notes.